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The latest big buzz is about a merger between Labor and Kadima as a magic formula to break the electoral bank in the next elections. What no one is saying is that the "left-center bloc" needs this virtual union like a bullet in the head. A merger between the two parties will only lose the bloc votes and hand Benjamin Netanyahu the premiership on a silver platter. That is how things stand as of today. In another year or two, everything could change, but a perusal of the findings of the comprehensive survey quoted here leaves no room for doubt.

As of today, Kadima would do well to place Tzipi Livni at the head of the party, and the two parties - Kadima led by Livni and Labor under the helm of Ehud Barak - have to run separately. That is their only chance of forming a centrist government in the next Knesset. That is one conclusion. A second is that they should not be in a hurry. If elections were held now, or in the foreseeable future, the right-wing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc would emerge victorious.

That is why Barak, in private conversations, is no longer talking about elections in the middle of 2008 but at the end of next year - and he is not committing himself to that, either. We'll see what will happen, he is saying, I want to work together with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to stabilize the government, pass the budget and, overall, to succeed, in order to dwarf Bibi (Netanyahu). After all, Olmert and I share a common interest: to show that a government by the two of us makes good things happen.

At present, Kadima and Labor taken together have 48 Knesset seats. That is an ideal situation compared to the reality as it emerges from the survey cited here, which was conducted by the Dialog Polling Company on Tuesday evening, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of the Statistics and Operations Research Department at Tel Aviv University. In a situation in which Kadima and Labor merge under the leadership of Barak, the joint list will receive a mere 32 seats; with Livni at its head, the bloc will get 34 seats; while under the leadership of Olmert, it would reap 27. Running as two parties, Barak alongside Livni, Labor alongside Kadima, gives the bloc an average of 10 additional seats.

In the final analysis, what is most important is the bloc. In Israel, coalitions are made of blocs, and this survey predicts that the left-center bloc does not have a majority that can prevent the right-wing from establishing a government. Aside from one scenario: if they run separately, although even then it's by a hair's breadth: 61 seats for Labor, Kadima, the Pensioners, Meretz and the Arab parties - that's the maximum.

Last week this column reported on the discreet weekly meetings held by Barak and Livni, alternating between his office and hers. In the wake of the report, Barak told someone that he and Livni talk mostly about Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas). Let's say this is true. Still, both of them are reading the polls as well. Each one of them gets predictions from a different pollster - Barak from his brother, Avinoam Brug, and Livni from Kalman Geier - and both of them are certainly familiar with these findings. It's hard to believe that they are seized by political bashfulness when they run out of things to say about Abu Mazen.

The Barak-Livni axis is the most interesting development in Israeli politics today. If Olmert does not manage to pull off the magic feat of the century and extricate himself from the bottomless public depths to which he sank after the Second Lebanon War, Livni will succeed him as head of Kadima.

Livni and Barak in the center and Netanyahu on the right are today perceived as the most suitable candidates to be prime minister. The Haaretz-Dialog poll examined that question differently this time. Instead of citing a list of candidates and asking the interviewees to choose among them, they were asked to offer their opinion on each of the candidates separately. Netanyahu is still in the lead, with 51 percent of those polled thinking he is very suitable or quite suitable; followed by Livni with 40 percent, and Barak close behind at 36 percent. Even Olmert doesn't get such a bad response - 18 percent think he is suitable or quite suitable - but opposition to him is tremendous: 80 percent. He needs a peace treaty (with the Palestinians, not with Livni) or a brilliant military operation along the lines of Entebbe to rehabilitate himself and get back into the game. And we haven't yet mentioned the police investigations or the final report of the Winograd Committee.

Back to Livni and Barak. The foreign minister continues to top the popularity chart, again receiving a high rate of satisfaction with the way she is doing her job: 48 percent. On the other hand, for the first time in months she has fallen below the 50 percent mark. Livni got used to being fifty-something in the past few months, but now she may have to forget about those approval ratings. And on top of that, she can forget about most of her staff. It was reported yesterday that half of her advisers - her bureau chief, Ilan Yonas; her personal assistant, Tamar Abramovich; and her media adviser, Ido Aharoni - will be leaving within a few weeks, "because they feel they have completed their tasks." It looks like a mass flight.

Hard time taking off

Barak, in contrast, is only just starting to build up his bureau. This week he appointed a media adviser, Ronen Moshe, who was once the Likud spokesman. The current poll shows that Barak is having a hard time taking off. As in 1998-1999, his years in the opposition, he is advancing very slowly. Five weeks ago, 28 percent of those polled said they were satisfied with his performance as defense minister; now this figure has risen to 30 percent. That's within the margin of statistical error. Maybe Barak needs to change his strategy: to give interviews only on security affairs, to demonstrate mastery of events, a firm hand on the wheel and all that. On the other hand, in so doing he would take the risk of people recalling the old Ehud.

But when all is said and done, and with all due respect to politics and fractions of percentage points, probably the most shocking statistic, which was reported on Haaretz's front page yesterday, is that a third of the public supports the soldiers who refused orders to evacuate settlers in Hebron this week. If that is not anarchy, then what is? Even if we take into account the full scope of statistical error - 5.2 percent - even then it turns out that a quarter of the Israeli public, and half of the Likud's voters, back the skullcap-wearing fanatics and their rabbis who have decided to run things here. A year before celebrating its sixtieth birthday, Israel is marking two gloomy records: a record high in evasion of army service and unprecedented popular support for ideological refusal.

A few additional comments about the survey:

1. Meir Sheetrit and Shaul Mofaz, both from Kadima, both senior ministers with considerable experience - the former in economics, the latter in security - are trailing far behind the less experienced Tzipi Livni in terms of suitability as prime minister. Livni is "perceived" as suitable for the most difficult position of them all. There is a very large gap between her public image and the way her colleagues treat her. It's a bit like the case of Ami Ayalon: The political community and the media treat the Labor Party MK as a good fellow, very cordial, but a bit hallucinatory, someone who is still trying to find himself, whereas the public considers him worthy and fit to be prime minister. Why? It's not clear.

2. The pollsters examined the category of suitability to be prime minister using two scales: "very suitable" and "quite suitable." Here the difference between Netanyahu and all the others is very obvious: 26 percent of those polled think he is "very suitable." Barak and Livni each received only 13 percent in this category, Olmert a mere 6 percent.

3. What happened to Arcadi Gaydamak's party? In earlier polls, held after the Second Lebanon War, at the height of all his philanthropic projects, Gaydamak came out with several Knesset seats for a nonexistent party. Now, after the dust has settled, he has settled with the dust, well below the threshold level for entering the Knesset, and there he is likely to remain.